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On the heels of a summer fraught with drama surrounding teachers and the policies that govern the schools where they work, education reporter Dana Goldstein offers a new look at the deep history of the profession to understand today’s disputes.

Dana Goldstein
Dana Goldstein

In her first book, “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession,” Goldstein chronicles milestones like the feminization of teaching, labor abuses and the subsequent rise of unions, and the relationship between schools, social justice and politics to remind us that today’s battles, reforms, and even some innovations are, however repackaged, often old news.

Goldstein talked with The Hechinger Report about what makes a good teacher, and how paying more attention to the past could help push American education forward.

Q. An underlying theme of the book is that many modern education reforms are not actually new; they’ve been tried before in what seems like a vicious cycle where we find something that needs fixing, talk about it for a while and then move on to the next issue. How do we break the cycle and start to see actual changes happening?

A. One of the reasons why reform efforts have failed again and again is that they tend to be extremely top down. They ask teachers to change but don’t give them the training and funding they need to make changes. Sustainable reform, in any social institution, is more likely to come from the bottom up than from the top down. [That way] they’re coming up with a plan that can actually be implemented successfully in their setting. A lot of our political systems make it really difficult.

There is a small movement that has existed since the 1970s of teacher-led schools. But in terms of, are we empowering teachers to do this politically? Unfortunately, not yet. There’s so much sense among parents and educators that the very big push on standardized testing has jumped the shark. We’re really looking for new ideas.

If we keep pursuing reform efforts that don’t actually empower teachers instructionally, what is at stake is this continued frustration, political rhetoric and conversation based on the idea of educational failure.

Q. Why haven’t we considered the history of teaching before moving forward with sweeping policy reforms, like the Common Core State Standards, in the past?

“We rarely begin any conversation about what should happen with an explanation about what happened in the past. We are very obsessed in the United States with this idea of innovation and that the newest ideas are always the best ones.” –Dana Goldstein

A. That’s a really good question. I’m not totally sure I know the answer. Generally, in the United States whether we are talking about education or something else, we have a rather ahistorical political culture. We rarely begin any conversation about what should happen with an explanation about what happened in the past. We are very obsessed in the United States with this idea of innovation and that the newest ideas are always the best ones. What’s ironic is that often the things that are presented as innovations aren’t new. We don’t know the history.

Q. There used to be some barriers that prevented people from getting into teaching, namely women and people of color. But today, there’s a common belief that it’s too easy to become a teacher. Do the barriers of the past contribute to that modern belief?

A. A lot of people accuse that the feminist movement and the Civil Rights movement ruined teaching. In the 1960s and 1970s all these opportunities for women and people of color were opening outside of teaching. But if you look at data for teacher qualification, it doesn’t look that different [today]. About 10 percent of all teachers are top students or went to elite universities.

There’s no doubt that when you talk to women who became teachers in the 1950s and early 1960s that they had this level of ambition that’s off the charts. They imagined that they would have been judges or surgeons if they had gone to college at a different time. Anecdotally, you do see that feminism did impact some people’s willingness to become teachers.

Q. Many people question the need for teachers’ unions, and the Vergara trial in California this summer seemed to indicate that a big chunk of the public thinks they’re outdated. Your book talks about the abuses of teachers — extremely low pay and no protections for minority teachers — that were combated by their formation. Have we outgrown teachers’ unions?

“If you believe workers have the right to be unionized, you have to preserve that right for teachers as well.” –Dana Goldstein

A. There’s no doubt that there are more labor protections now. It used to be that you could fire a teacher because she was pregnant and that’s now clearly illegal. We don’t need unions to protect that right. I don’t think that teachers are going to become non-unionized anytime soon and I think there’s a reason for that. You see that the job is very greatly politicized. There’s still a strong sense in the teaching force that if you don’t conform you have to be fearful. Teachers are weary of expressing dissent. You’ll see that they may support changes to tenure, but generally teachers do want to be unionized. If you believe workers have the right to be unionized, you have to preserve that right for teachers as well.

Q. There seems to be a lot of misinformation in the general public about what tenure is, and what it allows administrators to do.

A. All it really means is if the administration wants to fire a teacher, they have to gather evidence. In the law, there is a clear pathway for what you have to do if you have to get rid of a bad teacher. But does it work in practice? There’s a debate. Is it okay in New York City that it takes 18 months to go through that process? That is an important debate to have.

Q. You talk in your book about the most dedicated teachers as people who feel strongly about social justice and serving disadvantaged students. What other qualities make a good teacher?

A. One of the surprises of the research is that the impact on students of teachers having high expectations is real. I had sort of wondered if this was just a catchphrase or a talking point, but there seems to be persuasive research. It’s sort of a more concrete way of talking about the social justice beliefs that teachers have had all throughout history. All throughout history teachers were driven by this desire for education to be closing the economic gap.

Q. This seems in line with the popular belief that education is the ultimate equalizer. But your book suggests that teachers cannot solve poverty alone. What role does the teacher play?

A. There’s good research on this. Only seven percent of the current achievement gap is driven by differences in teacher qualities in school. But about 70 percent of the gap could be closed if we systemically got the best teachers to the poorest students. We could potentially use teachers to solve the problem. We can’t use teachers as the tool to solve inequality if we don’t make their work more attractive in high-poverty schools.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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